The BBC, Barry the Owl and the death of a union leader

Last Friday, the BBC News website ran a story with this headline: “A beloved owl who became a well-known resident in New York’s Central Park has died.” The story went on to say that “Barry the barred owl was flying low in search of a meal when it collided with one of the park’s maintenance trucks on Friday morning.”

On the previous evening, it was announced by the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, that Richard Trumka had suddenly passed away at the age of 72. Trumka was the president of the AFL-CIO, the main national trade union centre in the United States and the equivalent of the TUC here.

The BBC website had nothing about Trumka’s death, not on Thursday and not for at least three days afterwards.

With all due respect to Barry the Owl, and without wishing to cause offence to his many friends and family, how is it possible that the BBC didn’t see fit to mention the passing of the AFL-CIO president?

While the American trade unions have been in decline for a generation or more, a decline not halted by Trumka during his twelve years in office, the AFL-CIO still represents 56 national unions with a membership of around 12.5 million people.

The AFL-CIO is smaller than it used to be, but is hardly insignificant. Among other things, it and its affiliates played a major role in bringing an end to the nightmare Trump years by electing Biden and Harris last November.

Trumka was part of the team of insurgents led by John Sweeney which defeated the AFL-CIO’s old guard leadership back in 1995. They inherited a moribund trade union movement in steep decline and despite their efforts, the decline continued over the next quarter century. Not only did the labour movement shrink, but it also split with a number of important unions breaking ranks to form an alternative centre called “Change to Win.” Change to Win includes several of the most powerful unions in the U.S., among them the Teamsters, the service employees (SEIU) and the communication workers (CWA).

By all accounts, Rich Trumka was a decent man, son of a coal miner and life-long trade unionist. The former president of the United Mine Workers, he was given the thankless task of steering the unions through the Trump years. The Biden administration has promised to enact new labour laws which will make it much easier to grow the unions again — but sadly Trumka will not be around to see something he campaigned decades to achieve.

As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady wrote, “We have lost a brother today. Rich Trumka fought all his life for working class dignity and rights at work, in the US and around the world. He was the best of comrades to the UK trade union movement.”

Is any of this as important as the sad fate of “Barry the barred owl”? To the BBC, apparently not.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity